- Associated Press - Monday, September 28, 2015

HOUSTON, Minn. (AP) - Over the past decade, without formal plan or blue-ribbon commission’s deliberations, owls have started taking over Houston.

It began about 15 years ago with one great horned owl named Alice. Now the town along the Root River in north-central Houston County is now home to the International Owl Center in a storefront on its downtown, hosts hundreds or thousands of visitors from across the world during the International Owl Festival each spring, elementary students create hundreds of pieces of owl art for the festival and local businesses feature some of that art from an international coloring contest.

Houston has 10 pieces of owl art scattered outside local buildings.

With about $7 million, the town will also have a much larger, free-standing International Owl Center building.

The person behind the owl craze is Karla Bloem, who, by her own admission, was not owl crazy when she grew up. But about 15 years ago, she was head of the Houston Nature Center and got Alice, an injured great horned owl who still lives with her outside Houston and is one of four owls at the center. Bloem became fascinated with the predator birds.

She learned that 12 of the continent’s 19 owl species live in Minnesota, many of them in Houston County, so why not make owls a bigger deal? She started talking more about them and found there is no national or international owl center. Why not Houston? It would be a great identity for the town and also bring in visitors who might spend money locally.

And that’s how it all began.

It actually wasn’t a hard sell to get people interested in owls, she said. “People love owls,” she told the Post-Bulletin (https://bit.ly/1V5t8zH).

Why? “That is a question I have been asked 5 trillion times,” Bloem said.

This she can say, “people are not ambivalent about owls.” Decades ago, they were shot or trapped because they will kill and eat chickens and other small farm animals. Today, they are protected and have become iconic, like wolves or eagles.

The big news has been that the center is finally open with four part-time staffers and it has a new owl, Uhu, a female Eurasian eagle owl. That species is the second largest in the world, Bloem said.

Uhu are found in Europe and Asia, adding to the center’s international flavor.

One of the local businesses that have jumped into the owl craze is Barista’s, a coffee shop on Minnesota Highway 76. “We’re trying to support the owl center,” said Tom Benedum who owns it with his wife, Elizabeth Benedum. “We just started with a few pieces of owl decoration and it just went from there.”

People come to see the owl center and stay for lunch, a bike ride on the Root River Trail or for gas, he said. Or bicycle riders on the trail hear about the center and come over to it, he said.

His wife said it’s been good for business.

“People in the town are amazed how many people show up for this,” she said. “It’s pretty cool to have something to set you apart as a town. Some towns don’t have something to call their own.”

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Online:

International Owl Center: https://www.internationalowlcenter.org

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Information from: Post-Bulletin, https://www.postbulletin.com


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